Some observations on the realities of being and Aborigine in 21stcentury Australia by an observer who isn’t.
One of my piano teachers was the sole child of Polish Holocaust survivors. Unassuming people, these quiet and reserved people welcomed my mother and I into their home on a weekly basis so Elizabeth could tutor me. It was she who taught me to love music.
It is only now that I comprehend the significance of a statement made to me many years ago by one of the Poles whose benevolence I benefited from. When I commented that the Polish people that had emigrated to Australia had dispersed, unlike a lot of other migrants, he replied, “No, we did make a ghetto for ourselves”.
The survivors of ethnic cleansing policies are perhaps the only ones who can truly comprehend what drives a person to seek justice for himself and his people. It is possibly only they who know what it is live to survive without family, or the emotive disjunction that remains if they ever find a relative years later.
Until I met Mark, I did not realise that Australia’s Indigenous had to ‘prove’ their Aboriginal heritage. If they wish access Aboriginal benefits or stay on lands managed by an Aboriginal Land Council, they must have the piece of paper. If not, authorities of the state will have them removed. I wonder how non-Indigenous people who are born in Australia would feel if they had to prove the same whenever they needed to access funds, medical care or apply for a job.
Although the terms of the Northern Territory Intervention have broadened in the past six months, the original intent was aimed purely at Indigenous people. (Many commentators argue that the changes are little more than window dressing.) Included in the paternalistic restrictions forced upon these people is quarantining half of their Centrelink allowance for the provision of essentials such as food, clothing and medical supplies. Even people who had managed their own finances for many years as station hands were subjected to the humiliation of mandated income management.
Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” describes the survival of Wladislav Szpilman in World War Two. Like many Jews, his income was “managed” and he was forced to wear a yellow Star of David, before being rounded up with other Jews and relocated and restricted to a Jews only locale. The Jews in Warsaw did not realise they were building their own ghetto, walling themselves in, until it was too late. The people in Ampilwatja in the Northern Territory – all holders a Certificate of Aboriginality and many subsisting on welfare and therefore forced to accept income management – walked off their mission in protest of similar incursions upon their rights.
Many Indigenous children – the Stolen Generations – were removed from the care of their parents because they were believed to be unfit carers. In doing so, the children themselves were designated as Indigenous, whether they wished to be or not. Purely on the basis of the colour of themselves and/or their parents, children were removed. Purely of the basis of colour they were separated from their siblings, fracturing familial and cultural bonds that could never be effectively repaired. Years later, as the castes and skin tones developed, those of pale pate were expected to simply “blend in”, assimilate. Those who were not so fair, were still seen as Aboriginal by those in authority.
The Cronulla Riots of late 2005 should have demonstrated to Australians that judging a person’s heritage on appearances alone is not a reliable measure of ethnicity or political sympathies. Heritage is about so much more than skin colour. No-one would expect a Jew, German, Russian or heaven forbid, a Brit, to prove their heritage with a piece of paper just to access medical care or legal protection. Have we not accepted that the eugenics theories that so discriminated against anyone of non-European, non-white heritage were wrong? As a nation, are we not willing to say “ENOUGH! He is my brother, regardless of colour. Treat him as you would me”?
Marginalisation in schools, healthcare, by government and law enforcement agencies is simply not acceptable. It is not simply a matter of those who have been wronged forgetting and moving on. When justice is stymied by the very regime that forces standards of behaviour on a people simply because they have been designated as different, it is little wonder that they feel cheated and seek resolution from other authorities.
“Not black enough” to be recognised as Indigenous, but black enough to be removed before the age of two from the arms of their parents. The system can’t have it both ways. Dreaming an impossible Dream indeed, Bakchos.